The ongoing pandemic has brought to the fore critical issues concerning our health – be it physical or mental – especially in a country like the Philippines that is hard hit by COVID-19. As reported by The Lancet, “the longstanding battle with infectious diseases has been compounded with the rise in non-communicable diseases due to lifestyle changes and an increase in risk behaviors.”
Among these risk behaviors, cigarette smoking can be considered one of the most detrimental to one’s health, more so in light of how tobacco kills approximately 87,600 Filipinos per—240 deaths per day—per The Union in their report.
Even more worrisome, the World Bank notes that around 25% of all deaths related to heart disease and 80% of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke. Health experts also stress that smokers are at a higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.
Cigarette smoking during the pandemic
A 2021 mobile survey conducted by the Department of Health (DOH) reveals that 15.5% of Filipino adults are tobacco smokers, with 22.6% of men and 8.5% of women currently smoking tobacco. Furthermore, in the same study, it was noted that 1 in 10 adult men smoked tobacco on a daily basis. While the 2021 Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) has yet to be released by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), available data is already of further concern as it shows how a scant 4% or 640,000 out of the country’s 15.9 million smokers have quit the deadly habit.
Existing cigarette smoking regulation
The Philippines, as it stands, has long been a party to the 2005 WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This means that smoking is prohibited in identified public areas and workplaces, while numerous forms of tobacco advertising and promotion are also prohibited. Furthermore, stringent sales restrictions are also in place, such as the banning of cigarette sales within 100 meters of schools, playgrounds, and other facilities frequented by minors.
Yet, despite these seemingly stringent measures, cigarette smoking appears unabated in the country.
Vaping and Senate Bill No. 2239
Enter vaping and e-cigarettes and Senate Bill No. 2239, which “aims to regulate the importation, manufacture, sale, packaging, distribution, use and consumption of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products.” With countries such as the UK adopting e-cigarettes as an effective smoking cessation tool, and with the use of such products on the rise in the country, our legislators saw immense public health benefits when the nation’s smokers switch away to less harmful products. As stated by Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, the bill’s main sponsor, smoking “…is bad. It is harmful. It is dangerous.” Furthermore, he says, “It is good public policy for people smoking to shift to these types [vaporized nicotine] of products.”
E-cigarettes have shown to be effective for smokers to stop smoking completely, so much so that House Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta proclaimed, “As seen in other countries, smoke-free alternatives significantly contributed to the drop in the number of smokers. This is our gift, our legacy to the Filipino people.”
Nueva Ecija 1st District Rep. Estrellita Suansing agreed that the journey towards proper regulation of e-cigarettes would help rid the country of the smoking menace. She said, “we will look back at this Congress for starting the journey towards a smoke-free Philippines.”
Advocacy and consumer groups, among them the Nicotine Consumers Union of the Philippines (NCUP), have likewise thrown their support to Senate Bill No. 2239. “Once enacted into law, this measure is expected to reduce [the] smoking rate in the Philippines, as it will provide Filipino smokers a way out of smoking through less-harmful alternatives,” says NUCP president Anton Israel.